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Hands-on with LawBreakers, the shooter that wants you to hit a buzzer-beater

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It's not over till it's over in Cliff Bleszinski's next big project

There's a rivalry between the third and fourth floors of the Carolina Trust Building, a turn-of-last-century structure whose new tenant, Boss Key Productions, had to sign a whole lot of paperwork in order to work in a building on the National Register of Historic Places. Each day, Boss Key employees typically play about two hours of their upcoming multiplayer shooter, LawBreakers, hollering around walnut-paneled dividers and through frosted glass doors that still say things like TAILOR and N.C. MERCHANTS ASS'N.

"Josh was playing as the breacher and he thinks he's going to do some shit," said Tramell Isaac, Boss Key's art director, referring to environment artist Josh Rife, serving an all-purpose role on his floor's squad. Isaac was running around as a Vanguard, a heavy weapons role that packs a huge punch. The mode was Overcharge, which I played last week at a preview event. We'll get into the specifics in a second, but this type of game is set up so that even a team getting its ass kicked can steal victory at the end.

Rife had the battery, Overcharge's objective, with about 10 seconds left on a 30-second timer that starts once it is fully charged, which is accomplished by stashing it at your base and protecting it. The team possessing the battery when the clock hits zero wins the round. Two rounds of three win the match. Rife then heard the charge-up sound of Isaac's mega-ability: the Starfall, a tremendous area-of-effect attack that would imminently be separating his hold on the battery, and life.

"Everybody heard him going 'ohhhhhhhh NO!' on both floors," Isaac said. He hit Rife like a lifetime supply of bad news and picked up the battery with five seconds left. Ballgame.

"The NCAA championship just ended with a buzzer-beater," said Cliff Bleszinski, the well-known Gears of War creator who founded Boss Key in 2014, two years after leaving Epic Games. "And that's drama. That's exciting. What we're going for is a game that has a lot of great verbs. Lots of excitement, lots of drama. And when I come into work, and the playtesting's going on, and I hear Boss Key employees who have played this game a million times getting into arguments, punching each other in the shoulders, it's pretty magical."

The Starting Lineup

LawBreakers is more or less a class-based shooter, and will offer more than the four shown off at a preview event last week. All four classes are available to either side in the game, the Law or the Breakers, and are distinguished by their dialogue, personalities and physical appearances. Their abilities are the same regardless of which side they play. Boss Key Productions wanted a symmetrical competition.

Here are the four classes we played, and notes on their abilities:

• Titan

Names: Bomchelle (Law), Chronos (Breakers)

Weapons: Hammerhead, a rocket launcher, and the Crisper, a lightning rifle

Movement ability: Pulverize. The Titan leaps great distances, dealing area-of-effect damage when they land

Alternate abilities: Neutron mine, which slows down opponents, and Berserk, a roid-rage supplement that increases their size and mass.

• Enforcer

Names: Axel (Law), Kintaro (Breakers)

Weapons: Arestor, an assault rifle, and Badger, a close-quarters shock attack.

Movement ability: Distortion field, a time-displacement skill that speeds up movement, firing and reload speeds.

Alternate abilities: Electromag charge, which will prevent opponents from using their special abilities, and the Bloodhound Launcher, a shoulder-mounted lock-on rocket launcher.

• Assassin

Names: Hellion (Law), Kitsune (Breakers)

Weapons: Arc Blades, which are "experimental futuristic machetes with grappling extensions," and Romerus, an energy shotgun. The Arc Blades let the Assassin swing across the map like Spider-Man.

Movement ability: A burst-of-speed dash to outmaneuver foes.

Alternate abilities: Flux blast, which opens a gravity anomaly that disorients and immobilizes enemies and deflects projectiles; and Frenzy, which imparts health regeneration on each kill.

• Vanguard

Names: Maverick (Law), Toska-8 (Breakers)

Weapons: Hydra, a Gatling gun that has a spin-up but shreds opponents at full power, and Pulsar, a kind of retro-rocket punch fired from the gauntlet of the battlesuit, driving the Vanguard back and cooking whoever is standing in front.

Movement ability: Afterburners, backpack-mounted jets that impart limited flight with a considerable recharge/cooldown requirement

Alternate abilities: Meteor shells, a barrage of exploding projectiles, and Starfall, in which the Vanguard plunges into the ground, unleashing a shockwave attack that gibs most foes caught in the blast.

LawBreakers, coming to Windows PC via Steam, will offer alpha tests to players sometime later this year. The game is also playable at this weekends PAX East 2016. At GDC 2016, Boss Key announced that it had abandoned free-to-play plans and would release the game as a premium title, though it hasn't said at what price. Any microtransactions offered will be only for cosmetic items, Boss Key said.

The pre-alpha build I played showed a tight focus on what it wants to do that made the game ambitious but not ostentatious. There are two sides, the Law and the Breakers, and right now players may chose from four classes — more are planned — called "roles," whose special abilities and weapons are available to both sides. The map we ran on, "Grand View," funneled fighters into the action quickly, and markers on the main screen, instead of a minimap, helped keep you running into it. The roles have special abilities and weapons that present a learning curve but broadly evoke classes played in most other shooters — the melee player is most mobile, while the high-volume shooter has low accuracy, for example. Thus LawBreakers' biggest wildcard, the gravity anomalies, stood out out rather than competed for attention with the game's other features.

Gravity anomalies are where LawBreakers lightens up, literally. There's a thin canonical explanation for them (something about the moon cracking), but they're restricted to specific areas on the map, rather than showing up as some kind of timed event affecting the entire field of play. In anomaly zones, players can elevate to otherwise unreachable structures, firing underneath them as they go. Ballistic weapons will also alter a player's momentum and accuracy. Movement in low gravity required a steady look, in the direction I wanted to travel. I couldn't reach the top of a kiosk unless I aimed the crosshairs at it. Players still can aim and fire on players above and beneath them, the same as they can on the traditional sight lines of an FPS.

From these ingredients I could sense an emergent style of play unique to LawBreakers, even in my limited time with it. The game encourages improvisation —€” blind-fire behind your back in a gravity anomaly and you can propel yourself across it faster, for example (the "Bloodhound" rocket launcher for the Enforcer class can be used the same way, to even greater effect). The Assassin class has an electro-whip grappling tool on her blades that can grab other players as well as ledges. Because of how its cooldown works, two Assassins can grab onto a third who uses it to fling the whole party over the map, landing with the grapple still available. The Vanguard has a jetpack; I saw players flying with the melee attack (a boot) held down, a shrewd fundamental that seemed born of trial and error more than intentional design.

It's important to point out that Boss Key has a lot more in the pipeline than these four characters. We were introduced to Jay Hawkins — the artist who came up with the iconic chainsaw attachment for Gears of War's Lancer — as he was working on a recon-type class. This role began as a sniper, but Boss Key scrapped a long-range weapon for two pistols, one a lot stronger than the other. A medic role was also considered, but shelved as inconsistent with the action LawBreakers strives to provide.

"We had fears that the game was too complex. These characters have special abilities, they have movement abilities, they have the ability to chain-grapple," Bleszinski said. "But the people we've seen play the game really get it. They jump right in."

LawBreakers may still find itself fighting for attention among a new wave of colorful multiplayer shooters like the forthcoming Overwatch from Blizzard Entertainment and Battleborn by Gearbox Software, both launching in May. Bleszinski acknowledged being caught up in that trend, which he attributed to "rubber-banding off the whole entire generation of [shooters] having those brown games — 'war is hell, war never changes' — going on." But LawBreakers still will be an M-rated game speaking to an older audience. When I managed to land a combination kill with the Assassin, the game's commentary smirkily announced my "double fucking kill," for example.

lawbreakers Boss Key Studios

"There's a direct correlation these days between how cool your game is and how many YouTube videos it can yield," Bleszinski said. "My friends at Rocket League knew that, and knew the physics of their game could deliver that. We don't have a lot of physics in our game, but there's still a lot of great moments of getting blind-fire kills or chaining moves together, knocking somebody off a ledge, they grapple back up and knock you off.

"When you watch somebody who's good at this game, it really is impressive," he continued. "I'm average. Ned [Gasorntip], one of our artists, whenever he plays Kitsune [the bad guys' Assassin], he just rolls the whole team. That's my goal here, is to make something that's watchable, that yields cool videos and yields Twitch streams, and hopefully if you build it, people will come."

LawBreakers' publisher, South Korea-based Nexon, is better known for its line of online role-playing games and a strong presence in the Asian gaming market. LawBreakers is meant to launch in North America and Europe, following Splash Damage's Dirty Bomb as one of two Western-developed games published by Nexon. There are no plans for any console adaptations, though Boss Key hasn't ruled that out. At any rate, the game is optimized for keyboard-and-mouse play and is striving for very high frame rates throughout every match.

Gameplay of four classes in LawBreakers. In order: Assassin, Titan, Enforcer and Vanguard.

Bleszinski said LawBreakers' buzzer-beating finishes won't be limited to just Overcharge. "We have a work in progress of what I like to refer to as our version of capture and hold/territory/domination," Bleszinski said. "Normally that gametype in other games bores the crap out of me; I feel like I'm watching paint dry. I'm not willing to reveal what the twists are right now, but ours is like a speed-chess version of that."

In the end, he wants a continually competitive game where a player can still gut out a tough victory regardless of what their kill-to-death ratio looks like. "That's the Cinderella story," Bleszinski said, "and I guess that's kind of the theme of the game. I tasked my design team to create game types with drama. And I think they've succeeded in pulling that off."